After a nearly 150 year run, the famed Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performed its final show on Sunday in New York.
Here in St. Louis, circus performers were watching a live video stream of the event in a tent of their own.
“It was wonderfully heartfelt, some of the things the performers said, especially about the role of animals in people’s lives,” said Cecil MacKinnon, Circus Flora’s theater director, who joined St. Louis on the Air contributor Steve Potter on Thursday.
You’re more likely to recognize MacKinnon replete with extravagant dress, a face covered in white make-up and an exquisite hat when she becomes Yo-Yo the Narrator, a role she will once again take on for Circus Flora’s 31st production, “Time Flies.”
Performances begin June 1st and run through the 25th beneath the air-conditioned Big Top in Grand Center.
Although the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was dogged by declining attendance and allegations of animal abuse, Circus Flora is very much a different experience.
As opposed to the travelling three-ring circus, Circus Flora is an intimate one-ring setting where guests are able to get so close to the action that they can practically taste sawdust. It has the feel of a theater performance, complete with mood swings that range from laughter and heart-felt moments to excitement and being fearful that a high-wire act may go terribly wrong.
“I think the first thing is our dedication to a story, and that the show has a story that leads from one act to another and we have original music,” said MacKinnon on the difference between Circus Flora and larger circus acts. “We have horses, goats, donkeys, roosters. We have lots of animals but not animals in cages.”
The year’s production, “Time Flies,” will recall St. Louis poet T.S. Eliot’s “The Four Quartets,” which harkens upon the passage of time:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
In a sense, the sadness with which performers in St. Louis watched the last Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show is a telltale sign of how the passage of time and memories formed affect people in different ways.
Acrobat Sidney “Iking” Bateman is a familiar face to Circus Flora audiences. He began performing at age 11 with Circus Harmony’s St. Louis Arches and has performed internationally since.
“Iking was my childhood circus name,” Bateman explained. “My real name is Akeem and everyone would butcher that name in circus.”
The theme “Time Flies” is one that is only recently relevant for Bateman as he considers what’s ahead for him in five years. Whereas this year’s show will involve a time traveler who goes back to the past and falls in love with a young woman who he brings to the present, the past is a time from which Bateman has moved on.
Bateman grew up in north St. Louis amid difficult and dangerous circumstances.
“For people in St. Louis, they should know how bad north St. Louis is,” Bateman said. “It was just a community where, I’m not going to say where you’re set up to fail, because I don’t think that’s true anymore because I’m a prime example, but the situations and the conditions you’re put in, I could have easily gone in another direction.”
Bateman repeatedly used the word “family” to refer to his experience with Circus Flora.
“That’s the reason why I love Circus Flora and that’s the reason I come back every year… because of the atmosphere,” Bateman said. “When things were going bad for me, when my life was going in a different direction, I had Cecil, Jack, David, Jessica… I had everyone from Circus Flora and Circus Harmony to push me in the right directions.”
Bateman is bringing a new act to the Big Top this year.
“In previous years you’ve probably seen me jumping through these hoops, hitting some, also succeeding in most of the attempts,” Bateman said. “This year I’m going to be doing a new act. It’s Chinese Pole. It’s a long metal pole with a rubber coating on the outside and I do all those acrobatic movements on the pole, from the pole to the ground, from the pole onto the pole.”
In addition to Bateman, Circus Flora will feature the high wire daredevils, the Flying Wallendas, aerial straps, juggling, trapeze, comedy and more.
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